I understand enough about the synoptic problem to be dangerous. That is, it would be dangerous for me to propose a solution. I'll leave that to the professionals. But one does not need to be a New Testament scholar to understand that the synoptic Gospels, taken together, are problematic. In fact, recognizing problems is fairly straightforward -- unless theological precommitments force you to deny the obvious. I would argue that this curse plagues Turretinfan.
Specifically, the synoptic Gospels outline essentially the same story about Jesus, and yet in detail they sometimes present inconsistent, even contradictory, versions of the story. Trouble is, accepting this as an accurate account of the situation puts one at odds with Christian orthodoxy's doctrine of Scripture. According to this doctrine the Gospels tell us the historical truth about Jesus; they cannot err, and therefore they cannot be inconsistent with or contradict one another. Therefore, there is no real problem with the Gospels, only with the rebellious, unbelieving human readers.
This is a separate issue from the synoptic problem proper, which is concerned with the nature of the relationship between the synoptic Gospels. Which Gospel was written first? Where did the authors get their source material from? How does one explain the patterns of similarities and differences in wording, order, and content? None of these questions implies that the Gospels are anything less than 100% truthful in what they assert.
In the process of close investigation of the patterns of similarities and differences one finds the other problem. This second problem pops up so often that it ends up playing a significant role in many of the proposed solutions to the synoptic problem. So, which is it? Do the claims of inconsistencies and contradictions built into the structure of many modern approaches to the Gospels tell us more about the readers than they do about the Gospels themselves? Or, do these claims represent the "facts on the ground" and those who deny them tell us more about themselves than they do about the Gospels? Yes. IMHO both are true to some extent.
But this post is not an attempt to establish the middle ground. There are plenty of critics who discover problems in the Gospels that vanish as soon as one reads the text with a grain of sympathy and understanding. Not all problems can be made to disappear that easily, and some won't go away at all. The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is a good illustration of the latter. All the proposals to eliminate the problem posed by this story fail. In the end we face two contradictory versions of the story.
The two versions of the story can be found in Matthew 21:18-22 and Mark 11:12-14,22-25. Many people have struggled with the ethics of Jesus's cursing of the tree -- and even more over the implied cursing of the Jewish nation. However challenging that may be, I intend to ignore that issue. My interest is in the chronology of the two versions. Here are the salient differences:
|Time the tree withered||Immediately after Jesus cursed it||Unspecified but within a day|
|When the disciples heard the cursing||On the morning after the temple cleansing||On the morning before the temple cleansing|
|Who commented on the withering||discples||Peter|
|When the disciples saw the withered tree for the first time||By implication of their comment, immediately after Jesus cursed it.||About a day after Jesus cursed it.|
|Comment on disciples' frame of mind||They were amazed||Peter remembered|
|What they said about it||"How did the fig tree wither immediately?"||"Look, the fig tree you cursed has withered."|
If we apply the type of solution suggested by Turretinfan, we would explain (away) these differences by supposing that Jesus cursed the fig tree twice or that he cursed two fig trees on separate occasions. Neither of these solutions works well in this case.
Let's suppose Jesus cursed the fig tree twice on successive mornings. Matthew's version of the story reflects only the second cursing and Mark's only the first. The disciples' comment in Matthew seems odd; wouldn't they rather have asked what was different about the second cursing, or why it took two cursings to get the tree withered? And if Peter had just heard Jesus curse the tree a second time, what is the point of Mark's mentioning that he remembered it? Both stories make more sense if we suppose that only one cursing of the fig tree is in view. But if there were really two cursings of the same tree, the stories don't represent the likely historical reality behind them very well.
Let's suppose, then, that Jesus cursed two different trees on successive mornings. That means the disciples saw two withered fig trees the second morning, one that Jesus had cursed the day before and one that withered immediately after he cursed it. Peter's comment applies to the first tree and the disciples' amazement applies to the second. Each Gospel writer focused on the cursing of only one of the two trees. It seems highly unlikely that if Matthew were written by one of the disciples and Mark was a precis of Peter's recollections that both of them would have forgotten or decided to leave out of the story the fact that Jesus cursed two fig trees on successive mornings and that the disciples saw both of them withered on the same day. Was Jesus in the habit of performing such symbolic teaching acts repetetively on successive days? From the surviving Gospel stories it seems not. That would make this incident all the more noteworthy, but neither Gospel writer gives any hint that Jesus cursed fig trees twice.
Another way to explain (away) the situation is to propose that one of the two versions has been dischronologized. I found a couple of websites citing Gleason Archer on this, although the basic idea predates him big time. Archer himself did not argue that there were two trees and/or two cursings. Matthew simply relocated the first part of Mark's story so that it appears together with the second part. But one could use this type of procedure to rescue the idea that there were two cursings of two different trees. Perhaps one of the cursings took place later that week or during one of the earlier visits to Jerusalem recorded in the Gospel of John.
In a way I like this type of solution. Why don't we try it on Genesis 1 and 2? This could solve that sticky little problem of the story order of the creation of animals and Adam in Genesis 2 vs. the order in Genesis 1. Rather than adopting the controversial pluperfect reading of Gen 2:19a, we can simply say that God actually created birds of the air and beasts of the field twice, once on days 5 and 6 before the creation of humans and once again in the garden on day 6 after the creation of Adam. This solution makes 2:19 more chronologically consistent with 2:18 and 2:20-22. Of course there are problems with the "all"s in 2:19, but hey, as Calvinists will point out, when does "all" really mean "every single one without exception?"
It seems to me that this case matches the situation of "similar stories about separate events" better than Matthew and Mark's stories of the fig tree cursing. If somebody really wants to argue that Jesus cursed two different fig trees they should be ready to accept that there were actually two instances of animals and birds being created. The possibilities for this type of interpretation have barely been explored. Harold Lindsell did some ground-breaking work along these lines in his explanation of Peter's six denials in The Battle for the Bible. Among other things, this approach could lead to a new renaissance for the dispensationalist interpretation of prophecy. I can hardly wait.
But what about the assertion (Archer, et. al.) that Matthew simply compressed Mark's two-stage story into a single account? This is not a fair handling of Matthew's text. Jesus curses the tree and it withers "immediately." The disciples see it and wonder how it withered "immediately." This is not dischronologization. The narrative chronology is part of the point of the story. And if you take the story seriously as history, then you have to take the chronology of the story seriously as history, i.e., the cursing, withering and commentary happened "immediately" after one another. There are perfectly good words in Koine Greek for "a short time later" or "soon thereafter." παραχρῆμα is not one of them. It means "immediately," "right away." If the commenters adopting this view were correct, we could expect Mark's Peter to also point out that the fig tree withered "immediately" when he saw it the next day. After all, a fig tree withering in 24 hours is pretty quick!
A straightforward reading of either Gospel leads one to place the cursing(s) in a specific chronological context. Just because that context causes us problems doesn't mean we get to discount or ignore it. If Matthew's or Mark's chronological framework for this story is not intended to teach us when Jesus cursed the fig tree relative to the cleansing of the temple and the disciples' realization that the tree had withered, I'd like someone to explain how they can tell the difference between chronologies that can be ignored and chronologies (e.g., Genesis 1) that can't be ignored without threat of church discipline.
In conclusion there is no way to make Mark and Matthew's versions of this story cohere chronologically. That datum should be combined with many other indications that the Gospel stories do not always agree with one another. This is a starting point for understanding what the Gospels are, how they came about, what they are trying to do, and how successful they are at doing those things.